By Chris Chase
You couldn’t pay me enough to step into Stephen Beatty’s shoes these days. As Managing Director of Toyota Canada Incorporated, he’s been spearheading the company’s efforts north of the border to repair its reputation in the wake of recalls related to the perceived safety of its vehicles.
The most serious of these is the issue of sticking accelerator pedals, which have allegedly caused a number of crashes and, sadly, a few deaths in the United States. Beatty stopped in Ottawa recently on a public relations tour to both explain and demonstrate the fix the company has developed for cars affected by the gas pedal recall, and to demonstrate the company’s new brake override system, designed to prevent the runaway behaviour some drivers claim to have experienced in their Toyotas.
The gas pedal recall fix is well-known by now, having been publicized long before this, but it’s helpful to see it up close. It involves the insertion of a stainless steel plate, or shim, in the accelerator assembly to reduce friction between the pedal arm and the bracket that holds it. On its own, this friction wasn’t the problem, but Toyota says that condensation created by the operation of the car’s heater after a cold start was identified as amplifying that friction and preventing the pedal from returning normally to its rest, or idle, position.
We got some hands-on experience installing the shim, and it seems like a nice, simple fix to what could be a scary problem (Toyota didn’t say as much, but I expect that future models will get a redesigned pedal assembly that altogether eliminates the possibility of a sticky pedal). What really stands out when you get a chance to handle one of these throttle assemblies is that the return spring that brings the pedal back up to its rest position is pretty strong. Take this as you will, but it would take an awful lot of resistance – friction, or an errant floor mat, which was what started this mess – to keep the throttle from returning to the fully closed position.
For the record, Beatty says Toyota’s own mats, both the OEM carpet mats and the winter mats it sells as accessories, have always been designed specifically not to interfere with the pedals. Aftermarket universal-fit mats are more likely to cause pedal problems in any car or truck, and it’s important to note that any winter mat is meant to replace the carpet mats, and should never be placed on top of them. If you use universal-fit mats, take a close look at them: many are designed to be trimmed to better fit the vehicle’s footwell, and it’s well worth the effort to do so if it seems too large otherwise.
Beatty says some have accused the company’s throttle-by-wire software as being the culprit, but he insists this isn’t the case. In fact, he says, Toyota believes throttle-by-wire systems are actually less likely to cause unintended acceleration (to cop a phrase from the ludicrous Audi “scandal” of the 1980s) than older-style cable-operated throttles. Drive-by-wire throttles function based on a voltage generated by a sensor in the pedal assembly, which is transmitted to the throttle body on the engine. It’s as complicated as it sounds, but these systems are designed with failsafes that with close the throttle by default if there’s any discrepancy in the signal being sent and that being received by the engine. As if to drive home that point, Beatty’s other purpose in gathering journalists together in Ottawa was to demonstrate Toyota’s brake override system, a bit of software in the vehicle’s computerized brain that cuts voltage to the electronic throttle when the driver applies the brakes. We got to try it out in a controlled environment and, to no one’s surprise, it works.
The brake override feature will be baked into all Toyota models going forward, and some existing vehicles with throttle-by-wire can have it installed retroactively. Expect to see this technology adopted industry-wide in the next few years; on a recent ride-and-drive of the 2011 Hyundai Sonata, officials with that company said all of Hyundai’s models with throttle-by-wire will soon have a brake override feature.
We also got to try emergency stops in Toyota vehicles without the override, wherein we were told to accelerate at full throttle, and then attempt to stop the vehicle. As many in the know have pointed out previously, this works too: the brakes on any modern car or truck are strong enough to stop a vehicle, or at least slow it considerably, even when the engine is pulling at full power. It takes longer to stop, yes, but if the brakes are in good shape, you should be able to regain control.